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In interviews, Operation Avalanche director Matt Johnson has professed his love for moon-landing conspiracies, despite not believing in them. And who can blame him? The idea of NASA hiring Stanley Kubrick to doctor footage of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin taking their first lunar steps would make for a great movie. And a found-footage film about the making of the iconic clip? That’s an even better movie.
That’s not quite the thesis of Operation Avalanche, but it’s close. In it, Johnson plays a 1969 version of himself who, along with his more straight-faced colleague Owen (real and fictional name Owen Williams) makes up the CIA’s brand-new A/V department. After being asked to investigate their favorite director (guess who it is) as a possible spy, they accidentally discover that America is in danger of losing the feverish Space Race to the Russians. Hard as NASA has tried, they’re not yet ready to land on the moon. Luckily for the country though, Johnson comes up with the so-stupid-it’s-brilliant idea of filming a fake version of the moon landing themselves.
Naturally, about three-fourths of Operation Avalanche focuses on creating the footage, and it’s thrilling stuff. Enthusiastic film buff that he is, Johnson radiates an infectious glee when working with Williams and their more pompous coworker Boles (Josh Boles, who co-wrote the script), geeking out over the little details that painstakingly assemble the iconic final product. The biggest joy of Operation Avalanche is seeing how these scrappy effects — from a feather rigged to weigh the same as a hammer and projection technology cribbed from the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey — work to create such monumental visuals. That’s the core principle of filmmaking, really. Even the biggest ideas start with something small and practical, including staged moon landings. The grainy filter and ramshackle nature of the production design further add to the playfulness, giving the bulk of the film the feel of a vintage caper flick.
But once Operation Avalanche tries to be something other than a testament to the joy of making movies, it starts to buckle under its own narrative weight. Although they’re each established as polarized archetypes of jovial knucklehead and careerist square early on, Johnson and Williams never develop a substantial enough tension to justify the eventual rift in their friendship. There’s also a late-in-the-game moral dilemma surrounding the project that comes off as tonally inconsistent, the shift from mockumentary adventure to government thriller jarring when it would work better as slow and seamless. When the lead-up to the actual broadcast results in a car chase, the adrenaline of the pursuit comes from the jostling camerawork, not any kind of full investment in the characters.
Even in its weaker moments, however, Operation Avalanche does feel like something we haven’t seen before. Because the filmmakers essentially play themselves and did some elaborate legal tap-dancing to film at NASA (actual members of the space program are interviewed in the film), the lines between truth and fiction become intriguingly blurred. That’s a cliche saying in itself, but an apt one when considering the subject matter. Operation Avalanche isn’t just about the thrill of making movies — it’s about the thrill of making history.